Green architect Bill McDonough is on a roll. Ever since he persuaded Ford Motor Co. CEO Bill Ford Jr. in 1999 to hire him to oversee the $2 billion rebuild of a factory complex, McDonough has been on the road constantly, giving motivational talks about his grass-roofed and sun-drenched factories and speeches that compare conventional buildings with toxic off-gassing -- a process by which the chemicals in a product turn into gas that humans can breathe -- to the Nazis' gas chambers.
McDonough denounces ill-conceived design and pollution with the passion of the late David Brower and the confidence of Ayn Rand's Howard Roark. His promotional DVD is narrated by Susan Sarandon and includes executives gushing praise for his work. Ford calls McDonough "one of the most profound environmental thinkers in the world."
The publication of McDonough's new book -- Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002) -- has provided occasion for publications from Business Week to The New Yorker to write eerily similar puff pieces about how the 51-year-old "prophet" (in the words of Wired and Time, which both anointed him a hero of the planet) helps companies protect the environment and turn a profit at the same time.
Shaped like the Worst Case Scenario Handbook and made from recycled plastic instead of tree pulp, Cradle to Cradle condemns the threats to our bodies from toxic pollution and describes how to make things -- from wheelchair covers to buildings -- using processes that mimic the natural world.
McDonough tells story after story to business executives, university students and reporters about how companies can make money through clean production, product recycling and pollution elimination. They are powerful and inspiring narratives for audiences tired of hearing doom and gloom from environmentalists.
But in the rush to praise McDonough's vision of consumer items such as shoes and seat covers that, at end of their product life, can become "mulch for the local garden club," reporters have left unexamined his most famous sound bite: that "regulation is signal of design failure." It is a curious way of describing an old problem. After all, pollution -- not regulation -- is the first signal of design failure.
The story of McDonough's business partner and co-author of Cradle to Cradle, German chemist Michael Braungart, symbolizes the transition McDonough hopes that society will eventually make away from regulation.
Braungart is a former Greenpeace chemist and co-founder of the German Green Party. He started his company after locking down with fellow activists at the Ciba-Geigy factory in Basel, Switzerland, to protest its chemical spills into the Rhine River. After the incident, the pharmaceutical giant's director brought the activists flowers and cake and offered Braungart a consulting contract.
Braungart writes in Cradle to Cradle that he had planned to name his new company the Environmental Protection Enforcement Agency but changed the word "Enforcement" to "Encouragement" on the advice of the Ciba-Geigy executive, so that "it would be less hostile and more attractive to potential business clients." (McDonough and Braungart today count as clients Nike, The Gap, Herman Miller, Volvo and BASF -- in addition to Ford.)
While McDonough is careful to say that he thinks regulation is "legitimate," he also argues that society should rely more on positive incentives for companies to do the right thing. It's a vision that endears McDonough to American executives at such companies as Ford, whose executives and lobbyists work overtime to undermine government regulation of its environmental impact.
Pioneering green architect Sym Van Der Ryn says he finds McDonough's message "overly optimistic and uncritical -- perfect for George W. Bush."
So perfect, in fact, that the Bush administration's Environmental Protection Agency this year hired McDonough's company, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, to create a new standard for reusable book packaging. Once the design is ready, the EPA will give it away for free to companies such as FedEx and Amazon.com.
The EPA project is just the beginning, according to Joe Rinkevich, McDonough Braungart's vice president. The company's larger vision, he says, is to help the EPA drive the transition away "from a command-and-control culture to one that encourages positive creative activity."
To that, McDonough adds, "Instead of the EPA coming in and saying, you're bad, we need to regulate you, what if they came in and said, 'Hey you guys, you might want to try a new design protocol that doesn't require us to regulate you?' "
To dramatize his point, McDonough tells the story of his two-minute pitch that sold Ford's board of directors on a grass roof for its River Rouge factory in Michigan. In the midst of expensive recalls and production problems -- the automaker lost $5 billion in 2001 -- McDonough stressed the bottom line, saying:
"In three years you'll spend $48 million to install three chemical treatment plants so you don't violate the Clean Water Act, and you'll still have your workers standing around praying it doesn't rain.
"Or you can spend $13 million now to put a grass habitat on the roof that absorbs water, protects the roof from degradation, gives you free air conditioning and holds two inches of still water. Rainwater run-off will filter through a rock storage bed into a giant wetlands filter before it goes back into the Rouge River. No new chemical treatment plants, no workers standing around and . . ."
McDonough savors the punch line.
". . . we'll save you 35 million bucks."
The irony here is that Ford was only motivated to adopt McDonough and Braungart's innovations because it had to comply with the Clean Water Act, which makes pollution illegal -- or at least very expensive.
And keep in mind that Ford and the other auto companies did not voluntarily put seat belts and air bags into their vehicles. Indeed, for decades they lobbied against them at the cost of thousands of lives. It's too simple, and dangerous, to suggest that there's a win-win in every design innovation.
McDonough and Braungart do acknowledge in Cradle to Cradle that "in a world where designs are unintelligent and destructive, regulations can reduce immediate deleterious effects."
"But," they add, "ultimately regulation is a signal of design failure. In fact, it is what we call a license to harm: a permit issued by a government to industry so that it may dispense sickness, destruction and death at an 'acceptable' rate. But as we shall see, good design can require no regulation at all."
Indeed. But isn't it also the goal of good regulation -- and strong enforcement -- to stimulate good design?
The timing of all this matters a great deal. At a moment when environmental nongovernmental organizations are working overtime to defend basic protections such as the Clean Air and Clean Water acts from President Bush and a Republican Congress, America's most famous green architect is in the media dissing regulation as a mostly unnecessary relic.
After years of public-relations efforts by conservative think tanks and other anti-government activists, it's little surprise that the media has picked up on McDonough's anti-regulatory appeal. In a typical review of Cradle to Cradle, The New Yorker concludes that regulations "encourage companies to devote tremendous time and energy to figuring out how to get away with as much as possible, and to think of environmental concerns only as obstacles to profitability."
Following this logic, should we also blame anti-fraud laws for the tremendous time and energy public companies spent cooking their books and treating accounting laws only as obstacles to profitability?
If environmental -- or accounting -- laws are too weak, the proper response is to strengthen and better enforce them rather than blaming them for bad corporate behavior.
For every compelling story McDonough tells of companies that can avoid regulation and make money by reducing or avoiding pollution, there are dozens of others of companies that, for whatever reason, cannot. These stories, needless to say, didn't make it into Cradle to Cradle.
Ford, for one, believes so strongly that his company can't simultaneously reduce pollution and turn a profit that, in the spring of 2002, he led a coalition of the automakers and the United Auto Workers that defeated a modest attempt to raise vehicle fuel-efficiency standards in Congress. Soon Ford may join other automakers in suing the state of California for mandating lower carbon emissions for vehicles sold there.
Given industry resistance, and the federal government's hostility, green groups are increasingly waging "market campaigns" aimed at big companies, including Ford, the current target of the Sierra Club. Aren't these campaigns a legitimate form of regulation, a way to reduce what McDonough and Braungart call the "immediate deleterious effects" of pollution?
Not according to McDonough, who says the Sierra Club campaign against Ford "is a crime. It's not fair to Bill Ford, who has expressed the desire to preside over the death of the internal combustion engine. Why would you attack that person? All it does is create a situation in Detroit where all of his peers say: 'You see, you try and work with these people and what do they do? They come back and spit in your face.'
"What has the Sierra Club done to encourage the automobile industry to pay attention to that? Nothing. You don't attack somebody when they're down. Bill Ford has to make the company viable in order to make the changes he wants to make."
It does seem incongruous to many within the environmental movement that the Sierra Club chose as its target the most environmentally minded CEO in the history of the auto industry -- a man who became the boss at a time when the company was in terrible financial shape.
But Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope says, "Bill Ford Jr. said to me, 'You need to be the barbarian at the gate. This company won't change unless you keep the pressure on us.' "
Pope says that he even offered the help of his 700,000-member organization to win federal tax incentives for Ford Motor Co. to make the transition to better cars.
"Before Bush was elected -- when the country still had a budget surplus -- we met with Ford executives and said, 'Look, tell us what you need in the way of tax credits so you can redo your cars and keep jobs in the U.S.,' " Pope explained. "But the people inside the company who see the government and us as the enemy stonewalled it.
"Design can't trigger the need for change," he adds. "Ford had already decided to rebuild Rouge and replace it with something newer and better when it hired him. Unfortunately, McDonough hasn't gotten Ford to replace the existing physical stock of assembly lines to improve the quality of its cars."
Randy Hayes, whose Rainforest Action Network has scored big conservation victories through campaigns against targets from Burger King to Home Depot, is even more blunt. "Ask any of these consultants if they would have been hired had there not been campaigns by [Nike critic] Global Exchange, Rainforest Action Network or Greenpeace. They'll tell you it's virtually always because of the campaigns."
Indeed, companies that have made the biggest changes were often the targets of market campaigns: Nike for its factory conditions, McDonald's for its treatment of animals, Staples for selling paper made from endangered forests and Starbucks for its labor and environmental standards.
"Nike's work with McDonough is extremely impressive," says Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Dara O'Rourke, who studies regulation and corporate change. "I asked an executive why Nike's done so much, and he basically said, 'We've been told that the environment can't be another sweatshop issue for Nike. We're going to spend a whole lot of money so we don't get nailed on it.' The companies that have moved the farthest the fastest are ones where the cost of business as usual has gone up."
Nike today openly admits that the anti-sweatshop campaign against it succeeded in motivating change within the company.
"I don't think Nike would have made the kind of progress that it has made if we hadn't been attacked," Nike Vice President Maria Eitel told the Australian Financial Review in June 2002. "People will always do the minimum to be successful . . . There are not a lot of companies making progress on social issues that haven't been forced to."
As a consultant, McDonough's work is only as good as his clients will allow. And so it's to his credit that McDonough is impatient with the slow pace at which his ideas are being adopted. His associate Rinkevich acknowledges, "Many times we are frustrated to see companies not adopting the technical solutions sitting on the shelf."
McDonough Braungart's clients often share their green product innovations with competitors, but only after they have advanced the manufacturing processes enough to maintain a competitive advantage. This has apparently annoyed McDonough and Braungart, who want to see their green products and clean production innovations become the worldwide industry standard as quickly as possible.
Their response has been to create a new enterprise called Green Blue, which is organized as a nonprofit so that it can receive foundation funding and own the intellectual property of its projects. Designing better packaging for the EPA and then giving it away for free to government and business as a sort of "open source" code to companies is an example of the kind of work Green Blue will do.
But observers such as MIT's O'Rourke say that most big companies are so hampered by internal resistance to change that they never implement fairly simple environmental measures -- such as installing more efficient light bulbs and windows -- even when doing so would save millions of dollars a year in energy costs.
"The obstacles to change are not primarily technological, so new products and design tools aren't enough," says O'Rourke. "There's usually a few people in every big company trying to do something. They are often relegated to the environmental or social or legal division. None of it's been enough to change how the whole firm thinks about this stuff."
Driving both McDonough and the Sierra Club is the expectation that Ford's transition to better cars and cleaner production will raise standards among its global suppliers and set off a chain reaction among related industries. If CEO Ford and McDonough can point to tangible progress, the Sierra Club could declare victory and demand equally ambitious achievements from the other automakers.
It makes sense that McDonough would want politics to be like architecture and follow a clear design. But politics is less like architecture and more like the process of natural selection that McDonough professes to admire: messy, chaotic and marked by both conflict and collaboration.
For the seeds of the next industrial revolution to survive and thrive, positive incentives won't be enough. For McDonough's innovations to be broadly adopted by industry he will need to start seeing government regulators and campaigning NGOs as useful allies to prepare the terrain.
Michael Shellenberger and Erik Curren are co-founders of Lumina Strategies, a public-interest communications and campaign-design firm.